The Natural History (1599-1668)

The Natural Order of Things

Ulisse Aldrovandi was a scholar, philosopher, and collector across many areas and disciplines. He studied mathematics, medicine, and philosophy in the academies of Bologna and Padua, and would later become the first professor of natural history at Bologna. His crowning work, now called the Natural History, is his attempt to synthesize the worlds of knowledge that were becoming available to early modern thinkers and scholars.

Following the earlier models available to him since Pliny, Aldrovandi’s Natural History attempted to synthesize not just the features and details of plant and animal species, but their cultural, historical, mythological, and sometimes even their culinary uses. Each section on a specific animal was often accompanied by woodcut illustrations, some of which were incredibly detailed, showing the animal’s features, anatomy, and habits.

A woodcut from the section on eagles

Of the set’s thirteen volumes, only the first four, covering birds and insects, were published during his lifetime. The remainder of the Natural History drew on the work of Aldrovandi’s students, his notes, his literary references, and above all, the collections of specimens arranged in the public botanical garden in Bologna, which he had directed, and his own home in the city, which he bequeathed to the Senate of Bologna. At the time of his death, the collection contained as many as 18,000 items.

The later volumes covered all varieties of plants, animals, minerals, and even legendary or mythical creatures. Aldrovandi and his successors felt the need to account for anything that had been seen in the current day or had been said to exist by earlier authors. for this reason, the snakes of Northern Italy sit adjacent to their very distant cousins – dragons, basilisks, and hydra. Some of these woodcuts were drawn from “specimens” that adorned similar collections of natural history. A separate History of Monstrosities likewise dealt with the reported issues in human and animal reproduction, as a way of divining the true causes of nature from its myriad effects that could be collected and observed.

Although it is difficult to imagine a modern conception of science that contains these elements, Aldrovandi and his work sits at the crux of humanist inquiry in the early modern period, and its legacy is still with us today. The world of Aldrovandi and his contemporaries saw the rise of scholarly collections of books, specimens, and other objects that were known as cabinets of curiosity, or theaters, accessible to the friends and associates of the collector. These collections would blossom in the years after Aldrovandi’s death, and would eventually become the precursors to modern natural history museums. These volumes, as well as the vast number of people who worked to produce them, remind us that scholarly inquiry was an interdisciplinary blend of texts, observations, and objects, animated by the desire to make sense of the wondrous world that had come down to them.

The set at the University of Florida carries the bookplate of another longstanding and wide-ranging private library: the royal library of Liechtenstein, portions of which were sold off after World War II and are now in libraries in America and around the world.